Anger: A Field Guide

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Sermon video:

We are approaching the completion of the first year of Joseph Biden’s presidency here in the United States, and the news cycle is reporting about how our country is more divided today, politically, than it was a year ago.

There is a staggering number of people firmly convinced that those on the other side of the political aisle are trying to destroy our democracy. People are angry. This is made worse, in my opinion, by the fact that part of the reason for this political anger among us is due to the succuss of a big lie about election fraud. This lie has been refuted and disproven clearly and repeatedly, yet the lie continues to hold sway, as does the anger, which makes me angry.

Meanwhile, this pandemic continues to rage through our country and through the world. We’ve had record numbers of cases in our county in the past few weeks. It is worse now than it has ever been. Thankfully, the Omicron variant is not as deadly as earlier variants. Still, we’re close to a total of 60 thousand deaths in New York State, more than 800 thousand in the country, and nearing 5.5 million deaths worldwide. We are seeing an exponential rise is new cases. I get angry at the way people believe and spread disinformation spurred by political interests resulting in this increased harm to the public health.

So, yes. I will preach about anger this month as we work our way through the anniversary of the Trump Republican’s failed insurrection. I will preach about anger as the economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots continues to yawn wider. I will preach about anger as our grossly mismanaged healthcare system stumbles to respond to this public health crisis. I will preach about anger as American corporations continue to be the largest contributor of global greenhouse gas emissions – selling the future of our planet for a buck. Yes, I will preach about anger this month.  

But I don’t come off as an angry person, do I? If you were to asked to describe me, would ‘angry’ come to mind? Probably not. I do get angry. But I don’t spend a lot of time with it. I work to move my anger along, to transform it into action for change.

Everyone gets angry at times. Anger is one of our basic emotions. We typically associate the anger with the display of shouting and yelling, maybe a red face and clenched jaw, or a clenched fist. Violence seems to be a frequent companion to the emotion of anger.

In the 2015 Pixar movie, Inside Out, we see Anger drawn as a red emotion that, when pushed too far, will have the top of his head burst into flames (Stick hands out and make angry face). He is voiced by comedian Lewis Black. During the opening narration, Joy introduces the different emotions in the story. “That’s Anger. He cares very deeply about things being fair.”

That last part is going to be true for all the ways we display our anger. Anger is connected to caring deeply about things being fair. Anger is not always about ranting and ‘blowing up.’ It is one of our basic emotions. Everyone gets angry at times. The question is not if you get angry but what you do with it when you are angry.

Most of the resources I have about anger focus on the interpersonal levels, dealing with anger among friends and family members. I suspect this is because the goal is to allow the anger to be a catalyst for change, which is easier to accomplish in our personal relationships than it is to do on the national or global stage. But let’s take a look at the interpersonal side of this conversation for a bit. I have found there are parallels and insights suitable for the kind of angers I was sharing a few minutes earlier about injustices and politics.

Our reading this morning was taken from a classic book on the topic from 1985 – nearly 40 years ago. The primary focus of The Dance of Anger by Dr. Harriet Lerner is to serve as “a women’s guide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships.” The excerpt we heard was not focused on women’s anger in particular except in the way that the whole book is focused on women’s anger. But I tried to share a section that might be heard as useful by all genders. The dynamics of gender and anger have shifted a little over the past few decades, but I find the content still quite insightful.

In particular, the questions she encourages are important. “What am I really angry about?” “What is the problem, and whose problem is it?” And I love this one: “How can I learn to express my anger in a way that will not leave me feeling helpless and powerless?”

Dr. Lerner reveals the importance of listening to our anger to learn what it is offering, what message it is telling us about what matters to us. Anger is information that something is wrong. It is a signal that something needs to change.

A contemporary author agrees. In a 2011 essay entitled “Tender Anger,” minister and poet, Jan Richardson tells us:

“As with any emotion, anger can be a map. Within the landscape of our life, the presence of anger reveals where our passions lie, whom we love, what we consider important.  Anger shows us where we are vulnerable, where there are cracks or wounds in our soul, where there is brokenness within us or around us. If we pay attention to what anger reveals about the terrain of our soul, it can help us find and create the path ahead.”

She goes on to ask, “Is there a step I can take that will transform anger into action—for my own life, for the lives of those around me, for the life of the world?”

That’s the goal, isn’t it? When I get angry about something, the point is not just to yell and scream. The point is to change something. I want to transform the anger into action. But this can get tricky, yes? Punching something is an action. Violence is an action. What we want is more than any old action. We want action that will serve life. This is where this conversation turns into a sermon. We want our anger to be transformed into action that will heal and bring justice, or simply make things more fair. This is not easy to accomplish. It is spiritual work. The usual spiritual tasks are involved – decentering the ego, patience, practice, trust, and deep listening.

And it is true that anger is often a mask for other emotions that are harder to deal with, emotions such as fear and grief. When I talk about my anger at the political shenanigans, I can admit this anger is rooted in some fear for what is at risk and grief for what has been lost. And some of my anger is really just anger. When you are angry, it is worth checking in with yourself about other emotions beneath the anger.

During my first ministry, serving in a large church with two other ministers down in the D.C. area, I learned quite a bit about grief and loss. I remember one visit from an angry member of the congregation. One of the other ministers sighed when he heard I’d be visiting with this member, and said, “This is someone who gets angry a lot.  His pattern is to get angry at someone or something and leave the church. He’ll turn up then in one of the other nearby congregations for a while until he gets angry with something there and he’ll leave.” 

We met; we talked about what was going on. He aired his grievance and then began to develop a list of other grievances. Eventually, I stopped him and said, “I don’t know if I’m out of line, and if I am I trust you’ll tell me, but it seems like you’re angry a lot.” He paused a moment and then agreed with me. He said, “Before my wife died, we were a great team. I would curse the dark and she would light a candle.” His wife had died recently. I asked, “Who’s lighting the candles now?”

This member had been referencing an old Chinese proverb – “Don’t curse the darkness – light a candle.” The proverb inspired the founder of Amnesty International who created the “candle wrapped in barb wire” logo – such a powerful and recognizable image. Indeed, when faced with manifestations of evil, it is better to light a candle than curse the dark.  

So, what does that mean? How do we do that, how do we light proverbial candles when we are outraged at the world? How do we do more than merely curse the dark?

Feminist theologian Beverly Wildung Harrison wrote, “Anger … is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us.” She suggested that anger is a form of caring – it is a sign of our connections with what matter to us. Harrison wrote, “Where anger rises, there the energy to act is present.” [from ‘The Power of Anger in the Work of Love’ in Union Seminary Quarterly Review, vol. xxxvi, pp. 41-57, 1981]

If we can honor our anger as both a sign of our caring and a spark of energy to bring change, then we can transform anger from one of the negative emotions to be avoided into yet another form of love. Cursing the dark is not enough, because it is not action toward change. Lighting a candle is about using the spark of our anger to bring change. “Where anger rises, there the energy to act is present.”

The violence so often associated with anger is about unguided anger, about anger that merely rages without accomplishing the true goal. It is not enough to just be angry. We must learn to allow our anger to serve as a catalyst for growth and change. 

In her 2017 book, Braving the Wilderness, Dr. Brené Brown tells us:

“Anger is a catalyst. Holding on to it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.”

In short, it is not enough to be angry. We must allow our anger to spark change. And that is one of the hardest parts of this whole conversation. Isn’t it?

I get angry about something in part because I am not able to change it. I can’t control our global descent into climate crisis. I can’t stop other people from getting sucked into disinformation and political propaganda. I can’t solve income inequality or save someone from their own bad choices. Which heaps more anger on top of my anger because I can’t transform it into an action to make a change! … Or that is how it feels at times.

But I can control myself. I can respond – even with this anger and frustration. But not if I give my anger free rein. I have to learn to allow my anger to be the catalyst, the spark, without it becoming an all-consuming fire.

Even when we are feeling angry because we feel powerless and frustrated, we can take a breath and remember that our anger is information revealing our caring hearts, revealing what matters to us, revealing the focus of where we are called to light our candle.

To do that, first, acknowledge your anger when you have it. Trust that you do get angry from time to time and that it is a worthy emotion to have. Next, listen to your anger. It is information, a signal or map revealing what you care about, what matters to you. Check to see if your anger is masking a deeper emotion, in case there is something else you need to do. But if it really is just anger, then allow it to be a spark to lead you into courage and compassion that you may bring more love and justice into your life and the lives of the people around you.

Light a candle from that spark. Allow your anger to become courage and make the changes you need. Light the candle.

In a world without end, may it be so.